10 Surprising, Non-Physical Benefits of Exercise


Sad fact: Research suggests that about half of people who begin a regular exercise program will throw in the (sweaty gym) towel within six months. Maybe the weight didn't come off, or the six-pack never appeared. For all the time and energy and delayed-onset muscle soreness that exercise entails, some days it just doesn't seem worth the effort. (See also: 7 Simple Ways to Get Motivated for Your Workout)

But you might be surprised to learn that the benefits of working up a sweat go far beyond your bicep strength or belly fat. Here are 10 surprising non-physical benefits of exercise that are just as important as a number on the scale.

1. Better Cognitive Function

Smaller butt, bigger… brain? It looks that way. In fact, exercise's benefits to the brain are well documented. Various studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise can help create new brain cells and improve overall brain performance by boosting the level of a brain protein that is believed to contribute to decision-making and learning. How's that for a reason to rock those spandex (smarty) pants more often?

2. Better Mood

There are nearly 50 antidepressant drugs on the market today, but one of the most powerful antidepressants doesn't even require a prescription: exercise.

In 2000, researchers at Duke University compared the antidepressant effects of aerobic exercise to a popular antidepressant. What they found is that the group who exercised for about 40 minutes for three to five days per week experienced the greatest antidepressant effect. By increasing blood flow to the brain and releasing endorphins and serotonin, the body's natural antidepressants, exercise can influence brain chemistry in a positive way. If the thought of hitting the gym sometimes make you miserable, don't be fooled into skipping out; research says you'll come out happier than when you went in.

3. Better Sleep

I've never been a great sleeper, but on the days when I manage to get in a good, long run, I can collapse into bed and sleep like a log not long after dinner, spandex pants and all. Most studies link regular exercise to better sleep, even for those who suffer from serious insomnia. There's only one catch: It takes a while to work. Research shows that insomniacs who add exercise to their routines fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and report higher quality sleep than those who are less active, but the effects don't appear for several weeks. If you're working out and sleeping poorly, keep it up. Better sleep is on the way.

4. Better Sex

Research suggests that exercise makes sex better. By improving blood flow — to everything — sex can have a positive effect on sexual response and even prevent erectile dysfunction. Exercise also boosts endorphins and improves body image, helping put people in the mood. Experts also say that sex is a pretty decent form of exercise. You literally can't lose here, people; train for each by doing the other.

5. More Confidence

We often assume that exercise will make us feel better about ourselves because it'll make us look fitter, stronger, and healthier. But that's only partly true. In fact, exercise has been shown to improve self confidence no matter what you see in the mirror. According to research, the act of simply getting out and doing a body good will make you feel better about yourself, no matter how long or hard you push yourself — and no matter how much muscle tone you do or do not develop as a result.

6. More Creativity

We don't often think of artists as hard-body types, but many creative folk — particularly writers — are known to be avid and regular exercisers because they're in on a little secret: Inspiration is often found in motion. The philosopher and author Henry Thoreau claimed his thoughts began to flow "the moment my legs began to move." Got writer's block? Working out a creative problem? Exercise is likely to help boost your creative thinking. Your next great idea may only be a few steps down the road.

7. Better Control of Addiction

Having trouble quitting smoking? Or maybe you drink a bit more than you'd like, or even suffer from more serious addiction problems. Exercise can help with that. Addiction is based on the release of dopamine — a feel-good hormone — in the brain. This is what people become addicted to, therefore becoming addicted to whatever produces it, whether cigarettes or drugs or even sex. Fortunately, exercise produces dopamine too, making it a healthy alternative to more damaging addictions — and maybe even making bad habits easier to kick.

8. More Energy

It seems a bit counterintuitive, but expending more energy through exercise can help boost energy levels, even for those suffering from severe fatigue. But don't overdo it; if you're really worn out, a shorter, lower intensity bout of exercise has been shown to have the most positive effect.

9. Fewer Wrinkles

Maybe the fabled fountain of youth isn't a fountain at all. In fact, research suggests that it's probably a swimming pool — for swimming laps. No matter your age, exercise will improve your strength, endurance, posture, metabolism, and overall health. Those things can all help you look and feel younger. But the effects of working up a sweat are far more powerful than that; a recent study found that exercise can actually reverse the skin's aging process. If you're buying fancy wrinkle creams, consider diverting the money to a gym membership instead.

10. Better Memory

Remember how I said that exercise can improve cognitive function? If you don't, you might need more exercise, which has been found to have a powerful impact on memory, particularly as we age. Regular exercise actually boosts the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning. It may even help prevent dementia. Now, if you can just remember where you put your running shoes…

People exercise for so many reasons, but exercise is such a physical pursuit that it's easy to forget that not all its benefits are entirely physical. As it turns out, exercise is good not just for you body, but for, well, just about everything else. Okay, maybe not everything, but its stress-relieving properties are well-documented, so at least it'll help take the edge off whatever else life throws your way.

What does a good hard workout do for you?

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Guest's picture

I was surprised when I learned that runners actually have fewer knee injuries than non-runners and that running strengthens your bones.